Coins of the Ptolemies

Coins shown on this page have been enlarged to show detail. Actual diameters of the coins are given in the captions. The small image (left) shows the relative size of the coins to each other.

Following the death of Alexander the Great the great empire he had conquered was divided among his generals. Egypt became the domain of Ptolemy, a Macedonian with enough sense to occupy this choice property and stay out of most of the struggles that took place over the lands to the north. Perhaps this good sense explains why Ptolemy was able to die of old age and establish a dynasty that ruled Egypt until the last ruler of his line (Cleopatra VII) lost it to Rome in 33 BC. Male heirs in this family were all named Ptolemy so separating the coins of one from another can present problems. This week's Featured Coin is attributed to Ptolemy II (son of the founder) and is one of the largest struck ancient coins available to collectors.

Ptolemy II - Egypt - 285-246 BC - Bronze 'AE46' - 90.1g, 46mm diameter
Head of Zeus / Eagle on thunderbolt - 'of Ptolemy the King' E beneath eagle

The difficulty of striking coins this size must have been immense. Many, like this example, are a bit weakly struck. Flans were cast in a depression with sloping sides resulting in a coin with beveled edge and a reverse larger than the obverse. After casting, the flan was turned to round the blank and then struck by the dies. Striking rarely removed the 'dimple' where the coin was held during the turning process. Coins of this style were also produced in several smaller denominations. A full understanding of the relationships between these coins and their correct dating will require further study. Collectors simplify the matter by referring to the bronze coins by 'AE' followed by the diameter of the specimen in millimeters. Letters under the eagle and devices in the fields of some coins help identify the issues.

Silver coins of the Ptolemies frequently bore portraits of the current ruler or of Ptolemy I. This example (13.7g, 26mm) is attributed to the lifetime of Ptolemy I and bears a high relief portrait of exceptionally brutal beauty. Behind the ear (enlarged in the inset) is a tiny delta which is believed to be the signature of the artist. As with the coin above, the reverse shows the Ptolmaic eagle perched on a thunderbolt. Both of these attributes are associated with Zeus. Again, specialists in the series (I am not one) can identify various issues using the field letters and monograms. Struck in good silver, the coins were often tested and countermarked by ancient 'bankers' or merchants. An overdate (year 34/33) tetradrachm of Ptolemy II with a portrait of Ptolemy I was shown on my page My Questions for You.

Ptolemy VI - 180-145 BC
Fourree tetradrachm - 11.1g, 26mm
Paphos, Cyprus mint (Pi Alpha in field)
161-160 BC = Year 20 (LK)
Ptolemy VI & Ptolemy VIII - 170-164 BC
Bronze AE 32 - 26.0g, 32mm
Zeus head / Two eagles, cornucopia in field

Two coins of Ptolemy VI illustrate several points. The silver coin bears a portrait of the king. This example is plated with several breaks through to the copper core showing on the obverse. Collectors should be careful to check all silver coins for signs of being fourree. The mint is abbreviated with the first two letters of the city name but letter style here omits crossing the A's making them look like lambdas. The bronze coin shows two eagles in honor of the unwilling period of joint rule of two brothers. A highlight in the history of the Ptolemies, each of these kings was, one at a time, married to Cleopatra II who was also their sister. The flan was turned on a lathe before striking. In addition to the central 'dimples', concentric circles are still visible on the reverse at the lower right.

These few coins can hardly give an idea of the many varieties available to the Ptolemic collector. As with so many coinage series, time saw a decrease in weight standards and artistic quality. Collecting these coins includes ample opportunities to study a fascinating period in the history of the Greek world.

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(c) 1998 Doug Smith